Virtue, Foundation for True Friendship


Doctor John Cuddeback, Ph.D. teaches philosophy at Christendom College in Virginia. Twenty years ago he wrote the book True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. Recently, he updated it. Ignatius Press is releasing the new edition.

I had the chance to speak to Doctor Cuddeback about his teaching on the connection between virtue and true friendship based on the wisdom found in Aristotle, Aquinas and Aelred of Rieveaulx. (My words are in bold.)


You brought up Aristotle, the Nicomachean Ethics and you also brought up St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship. Of course, Aelred talks about the three levels of friendship and you brought that in as part of your description of friendship — friendship is based on virtue.

I find that this is one area where you really need to be ready to make the distinctions. Even to begin with seeing that there are these different kinds of friendships is the first step in being able to sort out what relationships I have. What relationships I might be looking for. So, just to get some good categories is a great beginning. It’s a great beginning to address that friendship in my life.


You bring out the three levels of friendship. You have the one that was based on basically — the first thing that popped in my mind, you don’t use this term — drinking buddies — people who just know each other and vice can be a connection.

Then you have the next level where there is some relation more like a business relationship, it sounds like. Then, of course, the third is the virtuous level which brings you to the true friendship.

Right. My favorite insight is really that dividing line between the two first kinds of friendship.

I normally use Aristotle’s terminology of the pleasant friendship and the useful friendship. The friendship of pleasure versus the friendship of utility. It’s important to see that those can be a reasonable part of life.


They can also be relationships that really fall short of helping us be where we should be. Helping to be the people that we should be, as you noted, can even be a situation where people are led into vice but not necessarily. People of integrity can have those more limited kinds of friendship and do them well, that’s an important thing to note.


One is recognizing there’s this third kind of friendship, which is the richest kind. It’s what we really mean when we speak of true friendship and to learn what is required for that is the key here. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Aelred really try to focus us on what a central part of life it can and should be. We need to understand what it’s going to require of us — specifically virtue — but that’s a beautiful explanation and it leads to very serious challenging implications.


You bring out that we need to be virtuous to be friends. It’s an essential part when both parties are seeking virtue, then they really come to that level of friendship.

Right, right the way I like to put it is Aristotle explicitly asked the question. It’s very provocative: “Can bad men be friends as well?” You know in the sense of the first two kinds of friendship, yes they can but in the sense of the third? I mean, and again there’s a certain nuance here, but the answer is in an important sense ‘No.’ I think the way to put it; it’s not about being overly judgmental here. It’s about seeing that friendship itself is where we get a great insight into what friendship is true.


Friendship is about living a truly human life together. So just step one step back. The people that we really love, we want what’s best for them. If we really want what’s best for them, we want them to flourish. We want them to come to be the people that God intended them to be. We want them to be virtuous and if that’s the case not only do we want to be able to help them do it. We want to be there with them.


For Aristotle, this is the picture that he fills in here for us. Look, we got to be serious. Life is a real drama. Are we going to live the way that we were designed to live or not? This is where it fits very wonderfully with Christianity too. Aristotle is just saying this from the viewpoint of what natural reason can see about virtue being the fulfillment of human nature.

It fits perfectly with the very high calling of Christianity. Life is serious when you really love someone and you want to share life together with that person, you want to be going after the deeper and most important things together.

So, the conclusion of that is to the extent that we fall short from the extent that we’re not living the way that we are called to be. Therefore, we are not capable of actually entering into such a relationship because we can’t be there with and for the people that we love.


You know as you brought up Aelred of Rievaulx, I always remember one of the things he taught is true friends lead each other to Christ. So it’s also in the catechism calling us to be always Christ-centered in our friendship and calls that a part of the call of chastity to build Christ-centered friendships.

Indeed. Well, so I mean I think again this is where we have this beautiful kind of coming together inside of Aristotle — true friendship is in living life well. It’s in living virtuously and in helping one another grow in that. He does not have a sense of the fuller Christian calling. When St. Thomas Aquinas comes along and discovers Aristotle’s view, he recognizes in it this is the foundation, this is the truth of reason that is open to the greater fulfillment of the supernatural light of revelation and faith here. Going to the 15th chapter of the Gospel of St. John our Lord calls us to friendship.


This means something specific. First of all, I love to see here that if we’re going to understand what our Lord is saying to us, this is where again we need the light of not stories, we need to have something to connect to in our life. The distinctions that have already been made and seen by the great philosophical tradition give us the foundation for understanding this astounding calling.


Our Lord is saying ‘I’m calling you to be friends.’ Okay. I’m calling you to be friends in the sense of we’re going to share a certain kind of life together. And so, it’s beyond just the natural virtues. It goes into the supernatural and theological virtues. It goes into sharing Christ and you’re absolutely right, Father, that St. Aelred really focuses on this. In fact, one of the things I really love that he says is friendship is the highest means to the coming to Perfection. He really means naturally speaking. There’s nothing comparing with the sacraments or something, but what but this gift from our lord of in God’s Great loving Plan he is. He gives us friendship as a way of preparing us for that deeper and more ultimate relationship with God.


I’ve recommended St. Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship in a lot of places and I always suggest: remember the true friendship leads you to Christ.

The best line in your book: “We can see God’s law is directing towards and preparing for friendship with himself.”

I appreciate that very much. I have to say, Father, one of the things that I always struggle with and I think a lot of people struggle with about Christianity is why the rules, why commandments? How does that fit? Is God someone who is just looking to make you have to jump through certain hoops? And if you’re willing to jump through these hoops, then you get this reward because you proved that you’re faithful?


It’s so much richer and better. I’m not saying there’s not an aspect of proving a certain fidelity, but it is the deeper element again we see already here through the great insight of Aristotle. Here’s my absolute favorite line from Aristotle that Thomas Aquinas loves to quote “friends, ultimately have the same likes and dislikes.” Of course, this means in the richer things. We’re not talking here about chocolate and vanilla. We’re talking here about the serious thing of life. Their hearts move together; their affections move together. They live based upon the same principles.


So, this is the angle from which to understand the way the Christian tradition has from the earliest times. The great Saint Augustine was big on this. “God’s law is his gift to us to show us how he wants us to live so we can share a life with him.” I mean it just that it so transforms. Oh, you mean living the virtues, living the Commandments is to be flourishing? It is to be living out what I’m called to be. It is to be living a life that you can say in a sense and in a very, very real sense is compatible and fits with God’s own life. It draws us into his very heart to be as it were living with him in those ways.


You bring up a fascinating thing that I love. I forget exactly how you phrase it: ‘You don’t talk to God like you’re slapping him on the back.’ One of the things that I thought of was that parable of the man who wasn’t dressed for the banquet. (Mt 22:11)

Yeah. Well, the great thing to point to there, Father, I think it’s a reasonable way to see that is exactly connecting to what we were just saying. if you’re going to be in the wedding banquet, you need to have certain kinds of dispositions. You have to have a certain inclination of the heart. You have to be united in affection with those that are there. That’s again what the commandments are guiding us towards — the very dispositions of heart and the ways of acting that make us part of this community of fellowship that God wants for us. So, there’s just some objective here.


It’s not God being somehow choosy. No, it’s God wanting what is best for us. Therefore, as it were demanding it of us but to connect that back also to not slapping him on the back. It means that there are different kinds of friendship.

One of the neat things here is that God does call us into that great intimacy even while remaining our God. He God gives us this astounding gift while remaining our God. He remains Yahweh the first principle, the creator of all the absolutely transcendent. He also calls us to share a very intimate life so that it seems part of the art of Christian Living is to see how those two fit together. Becoming his intimate friend does not somehow negate the fact that he still is our great God to whom we bow down and worship. So yes, actually he’s the one that gave us permission to call him friend by saying that he calls us friend. So, he’s the one that has reached out and bridged the gap, kind of reached across the great divide and called us to close intimacy. But at the same time and this is fitting and it’s beautiful and again, we just have to discern. How do we live that in all of its fullness? That we still have that incredible awe and an approach of worship and praise for the transcendent God who is also our intimate friend.


I wonder if that whole deepening our relationship with God has been undermined a bit by what we need to do to get to heaven. So we lose all of that deeper sense because that’s where our focus is.

Yep. I think that’s a great point, Father. And it is this richer friendship which is a great antidote to that.

It’s about relationship. It’s about someone that we’ve come to love for his own sake and have received the love that he has for us for his own sake. So, this ultimately removes the aspect of well, I’m just doing this to get this and I’m doing this just to get this reward or I’m doing this out of fear for such-and-such.


One neat thing that Aristotle brings out when he distinguishes these three kinds of friendship and one of pleasure or the pleasant one of usefulness and then this true or full overtures friendship. He says part of the beautiful aspect here is in this fuller friendship of virtue. There is the greatest pleasure. There is the greatest utility but it’s not rooted in the fact that you get utility. It’s not rooted in something the fact of hey, it’s fun to be together. It’s rooted in the profound and deeper appreciation of the other person for whom he is and then because of that it has this great pleasantness and it more usefully says than anything else could be.


They could just connect back very nicely to your point of the Christian sense of not ultimately acting out of a fear of punishment or I’m just looking to get some reward. No, it’s about relationship. It’s about I’ve come to know the person of Christ. I want to dwell with this person and then all these other things are given to us besides, you know.


That’s so powerful and I remember growing up we didn’t really learn that so much. I work with Brazilians and Americans. I’ve learned a lot as the Brazilians learned more the God is calling us to that relationship. Now, I’m 62 and I remember my father telling me he never learned this ‘God loves you’ stuff. God was to be feared and I think that affected his relationship with God pretty intensely as well. So, I think from a North American perspective, we haven’t heard about friendship as much. You might know this better than I would because you work with college students all the time.

Yeah, you know I think again that’s a great point and it only does depend upon background. Sometimes even just from family to family. I mean there certainly are some people that are getting that message. My sense is that John Paul II regards kind of the spirit in the Catholic church. I think he, with his personalism, really did try to emphasize that relationship and bring that out more. Again, there are great differences in between communities within communities. I certainly am in agreement with you that this is a key thing, especially in such a deep personalizing age that we live in. Absolutely central to the Christian message: the good news of the Gospel is the deep love of the Father.


So the sense of sonship and daughtership as well as then being called to the friendship. I mean again, both are so profoundly relational and I think precisely what we need to see in this day and age especially to fortify us against such ugliness against such isolate mission in the context of such suffering is this truth.


We’re not just making this up. It’s not as Nietzsche says: “You know Christians make up the things that are going to make them feel good to make them be able to kind of get through the hard times of life.” No actually on the contrary were just opening our eyes to receive the gift. The founding gift of the truth of there is a personal loving God who has called us from before we existed and loved us before we existed as loved us into existence and it’s all about friendship. And what better news is there to share with people than that.


That’s powerful and with that, I think that’s a great point to end up on and I really appreciate this time.


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